The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Never has that quote from Edmund Burke been more appropriate than in the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal that rocked Boston – and subsequently sent ripples around the globe – in 2003, when that evil was discovered by good men (and a woman) and they decided to do something about it. Spotlight is their story.

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When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jewish unmarried outsider, is hired by the Boston Globe as their new editor in 2001, he immediately gets to shaking things up at the storied newspaper. A local story about  fast-talking lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who claims he has proof that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, was fully aware of the actions of a recently convicted pedophile priest but chose to do nothing, has caught Baron’s eye. The Globe, like other local newspapers, pay mere lip service to these allegations though, both on the grounds of the litigious Garabedian’s prickly persona and a staunch Catholic family reader base who they don’t want to upset.

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Baron senses there’s something to this story though and so calls in Spotlight, the Globe’s special investigative journalism unit – the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States – run by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby, and fellow editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) are initially not entirely convinced of the lead but still task the Spotlight team – hard-nosed Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), tenacious lapsed-Catholic Sacha Pfeifer (Rachel McAdams) and protective family man Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James) – to get to digging like only they can.

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The trail they uncover is littered with slimy and toothy lawyers, broken victims, destroyed families, and delusioned predators completely convinced of their innocence. It also leads to a truth that would not just shake the world but force these journalists themselves to question their own unwitting compliance in a gut-wrenchingly ugly system of corruption and favours that has entrenched itself so comprehensively into the very roots of the local community so as to appear normal. As Garabedian succinctly puts it: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”

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Writer/Director Tom McCarthy (Up, The Station Agent) leads us through this tale with immaculate grace and respect, for both the often disturbing subject matter, as well as for our very human protagonists whose own failings are put on display as much as the monsters they are pursuing. This is a case where less is most definitely more as McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer eschews billowing pomp or glamourized big reveal flourishes, instead merely relying on a tightly controlled and sobering presentation of the brutal facts.

Everything from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s personal lensing and lighting to Howard Shore’s subtly emotive music score and more is a study in restraint. With even the film’s shades of grey colour palette carefully engineered by McCarthy so as to reflect all the half-truths and shady handshakes that resulted in this grim tableau. This is the very worst of horror stories: the mundanely realistic. The thought that this could be happening down our streets right now made all the more scarier thanks to how unassumingly it’s presented.

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And McCarthy’s efficacious directing is aided by powerful and emotionally charged performances from the entire cast, with Ruffalo in particular – once again demonstrating his prodigious character actor skills by physically disappearing into the role of Rezendes with the subtlest of mannerisms – bringing immense depth and gravitas to the toll this dark secret took on the journalists who uncovered it. So too the lesser known James proves his transition from his usual theatre stage haunts to the big screen to be a massively overdue one, as he brings a moving moral urgency to the affair.

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There’s no scenery chewing to be found in this cast, no moustache twirling, but the cumulative results of these utterly believable and human portrayals, coupled with McCarthy’s rock-steady direction, nevertheless yields a crippling punch to both the gut and head whose unsettling aftereffects will stay with you long after the credits rolls.

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Much like the real-life Spotlight team did, simply grinding away at this story with hard-nosed pragmatism and good ol’ journalistic elbow grease, McCarthy and co stick to simple but immaculately executed filmmaking fundamentals, never stooping to melodramatic hero-worship or trying to oversell this poignant and important piece. And also much like the Pulitzer-prize winning efforts of Robby Robinson and his team, the film is 100% fully deserving of all the current awards buzz it’s generating.

In a year set to be filled to bursting with technicolour, square-jawed heroes exploding into our eyeballs with spine-rattling pyrotechnic displays of movie magic, Spotlight is an emotional tour-de-force, free of pageantry trappings, that already shines bright as one of 2016’s best.

Last Updated: February 2, 2016

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions – but very little sleep – I’ve been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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